Over the last couple weeks I’ve been heads down on a lot of work. Existing projects and new ones. In general, I’ve never shied away from work that wasn’t part of my core skillset.
I like working on a range of disciplines and I rarely complain when I have to do tasks “outside of my job description.” Of course, there are some tasks I enjoy more than others.
But recently, I’ve thought a lot about regaining my focus. Looking back at the last couple years and re-evaluating where I am, where I came from and where I’d like to go in the future. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day work, even if you work for yourself, and lose sight of your goals.
There is a strange but natural progression most designers or developers experience, or anyone in the creative industry for that matter. It all starts with us becoming a designer because we love to design. We love the craft of designing, the colors, typography, layouts and even moreso the problem solving aspects of it. We fall in love with design because we simply love the act of creating something out of nothing. We stay up late moving things around for hours, sometimes even days, just to find this magical moment where everything “feels right.” On one hand we know very much what we’re doing, but sometimes we don’t. And it’s this rush of anxiety, this little gap between failure and success, that pushes us forward. It’s why we keep throwing ourselves into projects we are absolutely not prepared for.
"As we climb the corporate ladder, we find ourselves designing a little less every day."
As designers or developers we spend all this time becoming better at our craft. We spend years designing, experimenting and solving new problems. We not only get better, but we also get faster and more efficient. We start to have a more intimate relationship with our tools and typefaces, with colors and our ability to come up with unique ideas. All of our time is spent on becoming better at what we do as a creative person.
But then, everything changes. A few years later (sometimes less than 10 years) our path takes a sharp turn, even well before we reach our full potential. As we climb the corporate ladder, we find ourselves designing a little less every day. We start doing less of the things that originally made us fall in love with design and we start managing more. Some choose this path, but for many it’s the only available way to advance in our careers, make more money or be taken seriously. In most cases, there is simply no other way to level up without putting down the tools we love so much and taking on a management role.
It happens at big companies, but it also happens to those who open their own studios. The more successful you are with your own studio, the more likely you will be designing less and managing more. In the end, everyone loses. You lose because you’re not doing what got you into design in the first place. Everyone else loses because every designer who has the potential of reaching greatness is slowly vanishing.
"The question is: What are you sacrificing, and are you OK with it?"
And please don’t get me wrong — some designers want to be managers and lead a team. Managing people, inspiring other designers and helping them be their best is certainly a challenging and rewarding job. The question is: What are you sacrificing, and are you OK with it? Because ultimately, the longer it takes for you to realize that you're not a designer anymore, and the more time you spend "managing" rather than designing, the harder it will be to go back to being a designer again. You will, no matter what, lose your muscle memory and you certainly won't be on top of your profession anymore.
After thinking about this more, I started researching other industries to see how they do it. Is the natural progression of a musician at the height of their career to become a manager or producer? Do chefs hone their craft only to manage their crew?
The more I read into it, the more I became obsessed with the story of a chef. A chef spends years, maybe even decades, perfecting his or her craft. If you love the idea of becoming a chef, you most likely love food and coming up with new recipes or ways to challenge your taste buds. You take joy from being in the kitchen, working with your knives and working hard. There are no shortcuts. You eventually become so good that you’ll have your own staff or maybe your own restaurant. Yet, a chef (at least those I know), even at the height of their career, are still actively cooking in the kitchen. Experimenting with ingredients, chopping vegetables and being where the work happens.
"Today it’s just one more meeting you accept, one more task you delegate. Then one year later you find yourself in a completely different role."
It feels quite opposite to the modern designer’s experience, who at the middle of her career is lured into becoming a manager and rarely designs herself anymore. These things either happen more forcefully in a corporate environment, or they happen naturally due to the fact that you end up running your own studio and don’t find the time to design anymore. This shift happens slowly and creeps in over the years. No one asks you to stop being an individual contributor and start becoming a manager immediately. Today it’s just one more meeting you accept, one more task you delegate. Then one year later you find yourself in a completely different role. I know this not only from my own experience, but from many others who realize when it’s too late.
For me, the story of the chef is what inspires me. It helps me stay focused on what got me into design in the first place and keep doing what I enjoy doing most, which is designing and creating. Even if that means accepting pay cuts, scaling slower or taking a step back. I want to be like the chef with his own restaurant who still leaves a mess in the kitchen.